|Ottawa Citizen 20 March 1981|
Five firefighters die in train-van crash
IROQUOIS This St. Lawrence Seaway village of 1,200 is in mourning today as the shock of the deaths of five volunteer firemen, killed Thursday " by a speeding freight train, spread.
"They were the cream of the crop of the Village of Iroquois," Reeve Frank Rooney said of the men, who died on the way to a fire at the home of a daughter of one of the victims.
Police say driver Philip Thompson, the only fireman to survive, stopped the red emergency van at a two-track level crossing on a sideroad outside the village, at which barriers were down and warning lights flashing.
Thompson pulled the van around the barrier after an eastbound train passed, and it was hit broadside by a westbound freight travelling at about 90 kilometres an hour 100 kmh is the speed limit, say railway officials.
John Mason, 42, father of three.
Allen Holmes, 35, father of two.
Randy Thompson, 32, father of two.
Dennis Fisher, 34, father of two.
Joe Billings, 33, married with no children.
The Chevy van wrapped around the diesel engine and was carried 300 metres down the track. Police say Philip Thompson, 28 no relation to Randy Thompson was thrown from the vehicle by the impact. He was in stable condition today in Ottawa Civic Hospital with multiple fractures and internal injuries.
Police are still investigating the tragedy. Coroner Graham Houze has not yet decided whether to call an inquest into the deaths.
Canadian National spokesman Brian Moreau said today the westbound train was on a run from Morrisburg to Brockville and does not pass through that area every day as did the eastbound freight the train the firefighters were able to avoid.
The train was picking up freight and hauling it back to Brockville. It was carrying four cars loaded with freight and seven empty cars.
The east-bound freight makes a daily run through the area from Sudbury to Montreal It was pulling 105 cars.
Moreau said CN officials will interview all employees involved and report to the Canadian Transport Commission within the next two days.
Crash 'like it was in the movies'
IROQUOIS A witness to a spectacular van-train crash which killed five volunteer firemen described the scene as "just like in the movies."
Kevin Whitteker, 18, had stopped his car at a level crossing near here because the barriers were down and lights were flashing. When an east-bound train passed, he saw the Iroquois volunteer fire brigade's rescue van pull into the path of a westbound train.
"It was just like in the movies," Whitteker said. "There was no noise. The van was hit and dragged away."
Whitteker walked to the demolished van and helped driver Philip Thompson, the sole survivor, who was lying beside the track.
Other firemen who had been in a pumper truck behind the van also hurried to the front of the train.
Dalbert Valiquette, who has lived near the crossing for 17 years, said it was only the second time he had seen trains heading in different directions go by at the same time.
The volunteers had returned to the station at this village 90 km southwest of Ottawa, near Highway 401, at about 6:15 p.m. after extinguishing a chimney fire. They were quickly dispatched to another fire at the home of victim John Mason's daughter Cindy in Matilda Township.
Firemen from nearby Williamsburg responded to the fire call after the crash.
Train engineers Vern Easton and Cecil Code escaped injury. Traffic on the main Canadian National line between Toronto and Montreal was interrupted for four hours.
Iroquois Reeve Frank Rooney said after an emergency council meeting that plans are being made for a civic funeral for the fallen members of the village's 22-man volunteer fire brigade.
"It's the worst thing that has ever happened here," Rooney said. "They were family men with young children."
"We've lost 25 per cent of our fire department. Sometimes the Lord sees things a certain way."
Fire chief Mac Anderson expressed shock, saying it was the first time in his 25 years with the de partment that men had been lost in the line of duty.
Most of the residents of Iroquois knew the victims; many were related to one or more of them.
Glenn Swerdfeger, who owns a dairy farm nearby, was bitter about the tragedy which killed firemen Mason, 42, Allen Holmes, 35, Randy Thompson, 32, Dennis Fisher, 34, and Joe Billings, 33.
"They were good friends. Three of them (Holmes, Thompson and Fisher) went to my church."
The three had helped fight a blaze last October that destroyed Swerdfeger's barn, milking parlor and hay elevator, and they helped douse the fire that smoldered in his cattle feed for five days.
"The firemen returned several times and risked their lives to save the feed."
Don Thompson was stunned by the death of his son, Randy, who he said was with the brigade for 10 years without incident.
Hard-nosed members of Morrisburg OPP, who investigated the accident, were also moved.
"It's a real tragedy," said Constable Frank Albert, who played hockey and curled with the victims.
"It will hit a lot of people hard. In a small community, everybody knows everybody else."
The men were the type that nobody could fault, the constable said.
"They always co-operated with us."
The victims held jobs in local industries. All were church-going, sportsminded men active in the community in several ways. Holmes, a textile factory worker, also taught Sunday school.
One fireman who was at the scene said Iroquois will be a "sorrowful town for a long, long while."
"You know, I'm a pretty big boy, but I cried. And then I thought it could have been me."
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline March 1981.
Five firemen perish in level crossing accident:
Five volunteer fireman from the Seaway Valley Community of Iroquois met a tragic end on the evening of March 19th, 1981 when their emergency vehicle was struck by west bound Canadian National Railway freight #532.
En route to a call somewhere north of the village, the brigade had been momentarily halted at a protected level crossing on the Brinston Road. (Kingston sub mile 98.9) by the passage of eastbound freight #396 from Sarnia to Montreal.
No sooner had the van of the 105 car freight rattled by, then the driver of the vehicle (only one to survive the crash) advanced around the still lowered warning barrier - to be struck by GP 9 4486.
The force of the impact from the speeding train of 4 loads and 9 empties carried the hapless truck more than half a mile along the right of way.
Damage to the short hood of the diesel was estimated to be $10,000. The steps were destroyed and the engine's pilot was shoved back almost against the wheels. Needless to say all brake and m.u. hoses were destroyed. In spite of the damage, however, 4486 was able to limp back to her home base of Brockville under her own power.
Trains on the Kingston Sub. were only momentarily delayed by the crash. The eastbound track was opened at 20:45 while the westbound was checked out and freed of debris by 00:50. (Thanks to Stephen Hunter and Ollie McKee).
Ottawa Citizen 1 April 1981
The driver of a fire emergency van that collided with a train, resulting in the death of five Iroquois firefighters, has been charged with criminal negligence causing death.
Philip Thompson, 28, the sole survivor of the March 19 crash, was charged Tuesday after an investigation into the accident, which occurred when the van rounded a rail-crossing barrier and was shattered by a westbound work train.
Another train had gone by seconds earlier at the crossing about 90 kilometres south of Ottawa.
The six men were rushing to a chimney fire at the home of one of the firemen's daughters.
Thompson was released from the Ottawa Civic hospital last week where he had been treated for head injuries and multiple fractures.
Don Johnson, Crown attorney for Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, said he laid the charge after reviewing the results of an investigation by Ontario Provincial Police in Morrisburg.
Although the maximum penalty is life imprisonment, Johnson said the usual sentence is imprisonment for anywhere between 1 8 months and two years less a day.
The charge eliminates the need for a coroner's inquest into the accident
Thompson, who is not in police custody, is to appear in provincial court in Cornwall for a preliminary bearing April.
Ottawa Citizen 8 April 1981
Fireman appears in court over Iroquois fatalities
MORRISBURG (Staff) Hobbling into provincial court on on crutches, Iroquois firefighter Philip Thompson elected Tuesday to be tried in a higher court on charges of criminal negligence causing the death of five other firemen.
He did not enter a plea.
Thompson, 28, was the only survivor among six occupants of a fire emergency van which collided with a freight train near Iroquois March 19. The accident occurred at a level crossing while the van was en route to a minor house fire.
Crown Attorney Don Johnson asked for an adjournment to April 28 to allow police to finish their investigation of the accident.
Thompson was released after a relative, Carl Swerdfeger, signed a $5,000 recognizance which will be forfeited if Thompson fails to reappear.
Thompson spent several days in Ottawa Civic Hospital for treatment of a variety of injuries. He's wearing a cast on his right foot because of torn ligaments and chipped bones.
Ottawa Citizen 17 June 1981
Firefighter charged in deaths
MORRISBURG (Staff) Iroquois volunteer firefighter Philip Thompson has been ordered to stand trial on a charge of criminal negligence in connection with the March 19 death of five firefighters.
Thompson, 28, was charged after the small van he was driving to the scene of a fire in Matilda Township collided with a Canadian National Railways work train at the Brinston Road railway crossing.
The trial order was issued after a preliminary hearing here Tuesday. No date for the trial has been set and Thompson is free on his own recognizance.
Thompson, the only survivor of the crash, was hospitalized for four days.
Two witnesses testified at the hearing Tuesday and a statement Thompson gave to police March 25 was also entered as evidence.
Ontario Supreme Court Judge H. E. Hunter imposed a ban on publication of evidence.
Iroquois is 10 kilometres west of Morrisburg, on the St. Lawrence River.
Ottawa Citizen 24 November 1981
Court selects jury for train-firetruck crash trial
CORNWALL (Staff) A jury was selected here Monday for next week's trial of Iroquois resident Philip Thompson who has been charged in connection with the fatal firetruck-train collision last March 19.
Thompson, who was the driver of the emergency vehicle, has been charged with criminal negligence causing death.
The five other occupants of the van were killed. The accident occurred at the Brinston Road level crossing just east of Iroquois.
The volunteer firemen were responding to a chimney fire when the accident occurred.
Ottawa Citizen 1 December 1981
Driver 'goaded' into crossing tracks, court told
CORNWALL The lone survivor of the Iroquois volunteer fire department van that crashed into a freight train March 19, claimed he was goaded into driving around a level crossing gate, county court was told Monday.
Volunteer fireman Philip Thompson, 28, was charged with criminal negligence causing death after the accident that killed five firefighters in the emergency van he was driving.
The volunteers were rushing to a chimney fire near Iroquois at the house of the daughter of one of the firemen when it collided with the westbound train.
John Mason, 42, Allen Holmes, 35, Randy Thompson, 32, Dennis Fisher, 34, and Joseph Billings, 33, died in the accident.
OPP Constable Roy Guse testified Monday that Thompson claimed the other firemen urged him to drive around the lowered crossing barrier after an eastbound freight train had passed.
Thompson's statement to police showed the firemen waited two to three minutes for the 105-car train to clear the two-track crossing on a side-road outside the village.
"The gates wouldn't go up after the (eastbound) train went by and everybody in the van wanted to get going. They said I should drive around the gate," according to Thompson's statement. "I got part of the way across the tracks when I heard someone yell and saw the train coming. That's the last thing I remember."
Willard Duncan, deputy chief of the volunteer fire department said Thompson was not trained to operate fire pumpers and he didn't know if he had ever before driven the emergency van.
William Ewing, the driver of a pump er truck following the van, said he saw it hit by the train as he was about to drive the pumper truck around the barrier.
"I walked up the tracks behind the train and found Philip Thompson north of the tracks," Ewing said. "I saw he was alive and helped him a little bit.
"When I came across John Mason between the two tracks, there was no movement or pulse, so I figured he was dead. I went to the front of the van and heard a little noise from Dennis Fisher on the driver's side.
"There was nothing I could do for Allen Holmes, who was sitting in the passenger's seat."
The trial continues.
Ottawa Citizen 2 December 1981
Fireman guilty of dangerous driving
CORNWALL An Iroquois fireman has been found guilty of dangerous driving as a result of the crash last March of a fire department van with a freight train which killed five of his colleagues.
Philip Thompson, originally charged with the more serious charge of criminal negligence causing death, stood expressionless as the jury foreman told county court Judge George Stiles Tuesday that the jury could only find the volunteer fireman guilty of dangerous driving.
The van was hit by a westbound train moments after Thompson drove around a lowered crossing barrier that he had stopped at to wait for an eastbound freight to pass.
Thompson, 28, still a member of the fire department, but only as a stand-by volunteer, will be sentenced next Tuesday.
The penalty could range from a suspended sentence to a maximum two years in jail. The more serious charge of criminal negligence carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Thompson's lawyer, Douglas Grcnkie, said he would wait until sentencing to decide whether he will appeal the conviction.
The 12-member jury deliberated for two hours, breaking once to ask Stiles to repeat the legal definitions of the charges. The dangerous driving offence is automotically considered by judge or jury in accidents where the accused is acquitted of a criminal negligence charge.
Stiles told the jury a criminal negligence conviction could only be arrived at if they believed without a reasonable doubt Thompson had shown reckless disregard for the safety of his fellow firemen.
The key to the legal definition of the dangerous driving charge, said Stiles, was determining if the accused had driven in a manner dangerous to others.
The volunteers were rushing to a chimney fire at the house of the daughter of fireman John Mason, near Iroquois, when the accident occurred. Killed were the 42-year-old Mason, Allen Holmes, 35, Randy Thompson, 32, Dennis Fisher, 34, and Joseph Billings, 33.
Thompson was injured in the accident and remained in hospital for several days.
In his charge to the jury following the two-day trial. Stiles told them the driver of a fire truck, regardless of the emergency at hand, is no less obliged than any other motorist to stop and wait at a railway crossing until all warning signals have ceased.
Failing that, the driver is inviting danger, Stiles said, and that could be regarded as wanton or reckless disregard for the safety of others.
In his summation to the jury, defence counsel Douglas Grenkie said Thompson had made an innocent mistake, adding the jurors should ask themselves: "What would any reasonable person do in a similar situation?"
Testimony from police and Thompson showed the accused had never been given the responsibility of driving to a fire since joining the volunteer department only two months before, Grenkie said.
"I was proceeding (to a fire)," Thompson said Tuesday morning when asked during cross-examination to explain why he crossed the lowered railway barrier.
"As a new member, I did not know what standard procedure was
Other evidence showed Thompson had been goaded to drive around the barrier by the other firemen, the defence lawyer said in the summation.
"Every second counts (in a fire)," said Grenkie. "Everyone was anxious to go.
"It's a volunteer fireman's duty to go to fires and get them under control as soon as possible."
But in his summation, Assistant Crown Attorney Alan Ain said evidence indicated Thompson chose to chance it, guessing the railway barrier was malfunctioning.
But Ain said there was really no reason for Thompson to think that the barrier was malfunctioning, even though he couldn't see a westbound train. The barrier was down for the eastbound, 105-car train, Ain said, so it obviously was working properly.
"Imagine being on a platform 50 feet above the tracks," Ain said to the jury. "You see a train go by and then a train coming from the other direction. Then you see the van moving (around the barrier.)
"The feeling you would get is a manifestation of criminal negligence the accused showed when he deliberately drove his van over the tracks and didn't make it."
Following the trial, Thompson said a terse "no comment" when approached by reporters.
Ottawa Citizen 8 December 1981
Crash driver jailed
CORNWALL (Staff) An Iroquois volunteer firemen who drove an emergency truck through a level crossing into a freight train last March, killing five of his colleagues, was jailed today for five months.
Philip Thompson, 28, also had his driver's licence suspended for three years.
Last week a jury found Thompson guilty of a reduced charge of dangerous driving. He was originally charged with criminal negligence causing death.
"What you did was wrong and against the law, with tragic consequences," said county court Judge George Stiles.
Ottawa Citizen 9 December 1981
Dangerous driving nets five months
CORNWALL The Iroquois volunteer fireman who drove a van which smashed into a freight train last March killing five of his colleagues has been sentenced to five months in prison and had his driver's licence suspended for three years.
Philip Thompson, 28, was sentenced by county court Judge George Stiles here Tuesday after a jury found him guilty last week on a reduced charge of dangerous driving.
Originally he was charged with a more serious charge of criminal negligence causing death.
"What you did was wrong and against the law with tragic consequences," said Judge Stiles.
"Although it is a horrible burden that you'll have to bear the rest of your life, I am obliged to sentence you to a period of imprisonment," he said.
Defence lawyer Doug Grenkie said he was surprised by the sentence but it will be a few days before he'll decide whether to launch an appeal.
The emergency fire department van that Thompson drove was hit by a westbound train moments after he drove around a lowered crossing barrier at which he had stopped to let a eastbound freight train pass.
The volunteer firemen were enroute to a chimney fire at the house of the daughter of fireman John Mason, near Iroquois.
The mishap occurred at the railway crossing along the Brinston Road and Thompson, the only one to survive was injured and remained in hospital for several days.
Killed were the 42-year-old Mason, Allen Holmes, 35, Randy Thompson, 32, Dennis Fisher, 34 and Joseph Billings, 33.
"It was a momentary lapse- of about six seconds," Grenkie told the judge prior to the sentencing.
"For this he'll have to pay personally for the rest of his life," he said adding that this is a severe punishment by itself.
Grenkie noted that the publicity generated by this incident will serve as a deterrent and a period of incarceration is not necessary.
He also called six character witnesses to the stand including Iroquois village reeve Frank Rooney and Thompson's physician Dr. Henry Prins.
Rooney said the village's 1,250 residents "feel Thompson has suffered greatly because of the incident and will continue to do so through the rest of his days."
Dr. Prins said Thompson has suffered a great deal emotionally and physically as a result of the accident.
In his pre-sentence address, Assistant Crown Attorney Alan Ain said that many people " do not seem to accept that a motor vehicle is a dangerous weapon."
Thompson, he said, "gambled with the lives of others with his dangerous driving."
Ain called on the judge for "a deterrence to the public who are inclined to act in a similar fashion."
He also brought Ontario Provincial Police Constable Roy Guse to the stand who testified that Thompson was convicted in 1975 on a charge of driving with more than 80 milligrams of alcohol in blood.
Guse, a 23-year OPP veteran, said Thompson was fined $200 and was prohibited from driving for one year.
That charge was laid as a result of a one-car accident in which the passenger was killed.
Although Ain said the two incidents were not the same, they do reflect "the accused's apparent disregard for the danger of a motor vehicle."
Ottawa Citizen 21 December 1981
Villagers still mourn firemen
ROQUOIS As hard as they try, the residents of this tiny St. Lawrence Seaway village cannot forget.
The colored lights are strung, Santa Claus is in his favorite perch at the local shopping centre and from all outward appearances it appears to be a normal Christmas here, 90 kilometres south of Ottawa.
In the tiny firehall, the Christmas tree stands decorated as the volunteer firemen prepare for the annual children's party.
But across from the tree, five empty coat hooks stare back. This Christmas no firefighters' gear is under numbers 6, 8, 12, 15 and 18.
A stone plaque outside the station explains.
"In memory of Randy Thompson, Allan Holmes, Joe Billings, Dennis Fisher and John Mason, departed from us in the line of duty March 19, 1981."
The five volunteer firefighters were killed that night en route to a chimney fire when their van was crushed by a train at a level crossing.
Now, nine months later, yet another member of the brigade is absent from the festivities.
The lone survivor and driver of the van, 28-year-old Philip Thompson, recently began serving a five-month prison sentence for dangerous driving.
That March night, Thompson had waited near the tracks while an eastbound train passed, and then decided to chance driving around the crossing barrier before it was lifted. The van was hit by a westbound train.
The jail sentence (Thompson also had his licence suspended for five years) came as a blow to the 1,200 townsfolk, still numbed by the loss of five of their own.
It has many people remembering when they'd prefer to forget.
"It has added to our sorrow," says Reeve Frank Rooney. "The whole village is suffering, not just Phil. He's suffered enough.
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Ottawa Citizen 26 January 1982
Iroquois fireman freed after five weeks
The Iroquois volunteer firefighter who drove the van hit by a train last March killing five colleagues has been paroled after serving five weeks of a five-month prison sentence for dangerous driving.
Philip Thompson, 28, was released Jan. 13, eight days after the parole board received his letter asking for special consideration.
Thompson must report once a month to a probation officer until May 7. In addition to the prison term, his driver's licence was suspended for three years.
"It was an exceptional case in many, many ways," said Joe Whitehead; vice-chairman of the Eastern Ontario parole board. "Everyone in the community was supportive, including the police.
"The man's got to live with what happened for the rest of his life. That's punishment enough."
The van with its six occupants was crushed by a freight train March 19, moments after Thompson drove around a lowered crossing barrier at a level crossing on the edge of Iroquois, 90 kilometres south of Ottawa. He had stopped to let an castbound train pass and then skirted the barrier to save time. The van was hit by a westbound train.
Still a volunteer with the fire department, Thompson, a self-employed dry waller, had no comment Monday on his parole except to say, "everything's fine."
Volunteer fire chief Willard Duncan said he's glad Thompson has been freed.